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University of Central Missouri
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Phone: 660-543-4640
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Best-Selling Author Shares Insights Into Impact of Cell Research

Contact: Jeff Murphy
WARRENSBURG, MO (Nov. 13, 2014) – When Rebecca Skloot was 16 years old, she was sitting in a basic biology class when she learned about a cell line known as HeLa, vital to thousands of scientific studies, including developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and many other discoveries. When she asked her teacher about Henrietta Lacks, the person for whom the cell line is named, he proposed she do extra credit research to learn more about her.  As Skloot can now attest, “Good things do come from extra credit assignments”  - even if they take a while.

At the time Skloot was in high school, little information about Lacks was published, but the impact she unknowingly had on society was well known. The poor, African American tobacco farmer and mother of five children from Virginia, died of cancer in 1951, when she was only 31 years old. Without her knowledge, a doctor took a sample of tissue from a cancerous tumor in her cervix that was used to create the first known human immortal cell line for medical research.   

Rebecca Skloot
Rebecca Skloot

Skloot said her untiring curiosity to learn more about Henrietta Lacks and the impact of the HeLa cell discovery on her family followed her to college. After changing her academic path from veterinary medicine to science writing, Skloot dedicated 10 years of her life working with Lacks’ family members and conducting additional research to write the New York Times #1 best-selling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” In addition to sharing insights about her own educational upbringing, she spoke about her book and the challenges she faced writing it when she visited the University of Central Missouri Nov. 12.

Skloot was the guest speaker as a highlight of the fall 2014 One Campus, One Book Common Reader program. This initiative was launched in fall 2013 as a way to engage students and the campus community in a shared, academically-driven experience. The program is designed to provide opportunities for students to discuss relevant and complex subjects beyond the classroom that can also be applied to their daily lives. Many first-year composition students who have been reading Skloot’s book in their courses were among those attending her campus presentation.

In her opening remarks, Skloot expressed her appreciation for everyone at UCM who has been engaged in the One Campus, One Book Common Reader Program, with her book as the centerpiece.

“Everytime I show up on a campus and there are people talking about the book, it is just an enormous gift to me and my family, so thank you,” she told the audience.

She pointed out that Lacks’ story opens the door for discussion about many different issues, ranging from ethics law related to tissue collections and violations of the Lacks’ family’s privacy by journalists who published information about their medical history, to whether or not the family should be compensated by companies that profited from research using HeLa cells.

The moniker for HeLa cells came from combing the first two letters of Lacks’ first and last names. This cell line was discovered at a time when little was known about cell development. A doctor who was treating Lacks took a tissue culture from her body and discovered that her cells did not die. In fact, they multiplied very quickly. This made it possible to create an immortal cell line that could be used for further research. Demonstrating the impact these cells have had on medical research, it is estimated that some 150 metric tons of HeLa cells have since been produced worldwide, Skloot said.

“There really isn’t a person in the world who hasn’t somehow benefitted from these cells, whether it is a vaccine or taking a drug, the reach is just tremendous…and Henrietta had no idea,” Skloot said.

Skloot talked about the challenges the Lacks family, who had little knowledge of science, faced in coming to grips with the research that was done using HeLa cells. One of the greatest hurdles Skloot faced in writing, “The Immortal Life” was gaining the family’s trust. Her husband and his children had grown weary after years of being hounded by individuals “who wanted something from them,” she said.

Skloot recalled her first phone call to the Lacks’ family in which Henrietta’s then 30-year-old daughter, Deborah, hung up on her. She waited a year and a half  to try to connect with her, and persistence paid off. Deborah, who was just a toddler when her mother died, wanted to learn more about Henrietta. She and Skloot eventually developed a working relationship, built around a genuine desire to share her mother’s story, and what society today can learn from it. This contributed immensely to the book being published, however, Skloot admits the  relationship between her and the Lacks family member was not always easy.

“There were a lot of hurdles. The biggest one was Deborah,” she said, noting Deborah had a strong faith and didn’t want to do anything that might affect her mother in the afterlife. “She had moments where she would get scared and push me away. But she was an incredible inspiration. I never met a woman who was more determined to learn than Deborah.”

Skloot spoke about what she personally learned from her book project. “One of the biggest things I took away from this is curiosity,” she said.

“Every field out there relies on curiosity. I encourage all of you to harness that within yourselves as you go through school,” she told a crowd of mostly students, which filled the lower portion of Hendricks Hall and spilled into the balcony.

Summing up her experience, she talked about the high school biology teacher who once encouraged her to seek out more information about Lacks. She noted that that she sent him a copy of her manuscript after it was published, realizing he probably didn’t remember the conversation she once had with him about writing for extra credit. Despite that, Skloot was inspired by his response.

“This is why you teach,” the former teacher wrote back to her. “You never know what one sentence you say in a classroom is going to land on someone.”  

Skloot’s presentation at UCM, "The Story of a Woman Named Henrietta Lacks and a Cell Named HeLa," was sponsored by Lifelong Learning at UCM; American Democracy Project; Office of Student Experience and Engagement; UCM's Department of English and Philosophy; Pleiades Visitors Writing Series; Trails Regional Library; and the UCM Center for Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.